Malachi: I am heterosexual. Actually, I guess it’s heteroflexible. Now it’s bisexual, then full-blown lesbian. Well, pansexual maybe fits better. Except, no. I think, queer. Yes, queer.
I’m a girl. Or, no. I’m androgynous. Zie and hir pronouns, please. Only, I think I am a boy. Testosterone and male pronouns now. Except I hate passing, but love my facial hair. Plus, I’d like to have kids someday. So, maybe no more testosterone, but I’ll keep the beard. Masculine pronouns are fine, but gender-neutral also work: they/them please. Dangit, I think my gender is just queer, too.
For many people, identity is a spectrum rather than a fixed point. As a mathematician, I think in terms of continuous and discrete: my identities are fluid and continuous, but at discrete moments in time, I can pinpoint how I identify.
I feel very strongly that I am the compilation of every person I have ever been, even if I no longer identify in some of those ways. I am not, for example, heterosexual- but at one point in my life, I strongly held that identity and it was crucial to how I understood how I fit into the world. Although I do not (and have not) identified as straight for quite some time, I recognize and appreciate the place that identity had in my life: as the child of lesbian parents, I wanted desperately to be normal and fit it. My heterosexuality was my rebellion, my assertion of my independence, my declaration that I was different from my parents.
Of course, that didn’t particularly stick, and I fell head-over-heels for a woman my freshman year of high school. From there, my identity seemed to ping-pong back and forth for a while, and I finally settled on bisexual. But then I learned about gender theory and came to a better understanding of my own gender. I realized quickly that “bisexual” didn’t make a whole lot of sense because my gender wasn’t a fixed entity, so “attraction to same and attraction to different” held no meaning for me. Everyone was different from me, so I must be straight, except that didn’t work, because I was attracted to people with the same genital configuration.
Around this time, I discovered the term “pansexual.” It felt better than bisexual, but still a little clunky and awkward in my mouth. From there, I grew to have a better understanding and self-definition of queer, and finally settled on “queer” as both a sexual and a gender identity.
This is not every person’s experience, but I think that we spend a lot of time trying to understand where we fit in the boxes we are offered. As a trans person, I have had several experiences in which a person and I had a sexual connection, and then they immediately began to struggle: in order to validate their own identity (particularly a binary identity), they had to invalidate mine (e.g. men who claimed heterosexuality or women who were lesbians needed to see me as female in order to not have an identity crisis).
I have found that identity and attraction can get complicated, particularly when trans people are involved. There are so many levels and facets to what makes us attracted to a particular person- are we attracted to a masculine or feminine presentation? Are we attracted to a particular genital configuration? Are we attracted to the particular way someone carries themselves?
The reality is, identity is complicated and tough to navigate sometimes. And when our identities are based on our relationship to other people, it becomes a lot harder to avoid invalidating one person’s identity in order to affirm the other person’s.
Understanding where our attraction comes from and why we are attracted to what/whom we are attracted to is important. It also helps differentiate between an attraction preference and a fetish.
I really love people’s backs. It’s almost always one of the things that I love on a person’s body. But I have to like the person attached to the back. It becomes a fetish when the person is no longer a factor in the attraction.
As a trans person, I have experienced first hand (many, many times) what it feels like to be fetishized. I have felt the distinction of someone who wanted to sleep with me because of the anomaly of my presentation rather than for who I am.
This is not, of course, to say that there is anything wrong with having a particular fetish. We have to make sure, however, that when our fetishes are based on a person (rather than an object, such as shoes or rope or lingerie) that we do not dehumanize or objectify the person.
Our identities shift and change, as do our sexual preferences. The identities I have carried are the result of exposure to new ideas, conversations about those ideas, and self-analysis around what those ideas mean to me. And it’s taught me that there are straight men who will sleep with trans guys, and still feel totally comfortable in their heterosexuality because they are attracted to a certain genital configuration, but can be totally respectful of someone’s identity. And there are gay men who will sleep with trans men and feel totally comfortable in their homosexuality, because they are attracted to the physical presence of someone, and don’t care what the genital configuration looks like. And there are people who want to sleep with trans people for the novelty of the juxtaposition between physical appearance and genital configuration. The first two, I have found to be
wonderful and not particularly limiting to a person’s sexual identity or expression. The third, however, becomes a much more problematic perspective because it treats a trans person like an interchangeable object- any trans person will due.
Understanding where attraction comes from and what we are attracted to about a person goes a long way to understanding when our attractions fall outside of our expectations, and help keep us from fetishizing another person. Self-awareness is what makes the predominantly heterosexual man sleep with a trans man and feel completely comfortable about his identity and the identity of his male lover, rather than invalidating his lover’s identity to reassure his own masculinity.
Of course, this can all be applied to women, and trans people as well. It’s an important aspect of our sexual selves that we need to be aware of because sometimes, our own sense of sexual attraction takes us by surprise. These labels are great, but in a comment on last week’s post, Frank states, “I wonder what would happen if we gave ourselves blanket permission simply to express who and what we were at any given moment, regardless of what some category called for.”
I wonder too, what would happen, if we could simply find joys in the places where joy calls to us, and not get so hung up on how a certain label defines our actions.
Robin: There is a certain joy in contemplating how far, over the course of about 30 years since I came out as a gay man, LGBTQIA people have come in terms of public acceptance. I say this, even though of course there are many obstacles, especially for those groups whose initials follow L and G (but not including A, and recognizing that Gs generally fare better than Ls, due in large measure to misogyny and patriarchy).
I came out to myself and to my then wife 34 years ago (at age 35), after completing my first year of seminary, and then began coming out to others in the seminary community and the wider world. In that same period, I also came out to the priest of the Episcopal Church in Michigan where I had grown up and served as a lay leader. He responded by telling me that he and the Vestry (the church board) no longer supported my seminary education and did not wish for me to darken the doors of the church again (ten years later, they made an exception, when at my sister’s request I preached at our mother’s funeral who had stopped going to the church when they rejected her son–and again eight years after that when I was permitted to speak at the memorial service for my former wife).
I have been actively involved in various religious endeavors to promote LGBTQI equality over all the years since 1982, and in some ways my life feels like a personal version of the larger liberation struggle. Again, the struggle is far from over, but now I find myself engaged, through this blog with Malachi and our monthly teaching through MCC, in a different way,
one that assumes equality and seeks to widen the conversation so that the entire Christian church (and I pray other religious bodies) becomes more open to and celebratory of all forms of life-affirming, God-given sexuality.
That means that we, Malachi and I, tackle subjects that most people, and certainly the church, tend to ignore and even devalue.
For example, my coming out process allowed me for the first time to experience, and admit, how my desire was impacted by particular characteristics of men. Until I was honest with myself about my powerful attraction to the bodies of men I was unable to acknowledge, let alone celebrate, how certain types of men–their bodies and their minds and personalities–fueled my desire.
When I first came out, certain body characteristics assumed a great importance. I was in my mid-30s and one might have thought I would be more balanced in responses. However, in some ways I was like a teenager finally freed to let my hormones assume full control. Not able to experience honest powerful sexual desire in my teens, I was now like a kid in a candy shop. Frankly, given my sex life in the early days of my newfound sense of self, it is a wonder I am not HIV+. I give God thanks for my health every day.
I knew right away I liked men with long hair. At the same time, I liked hairless chests and minimal or even hairless (shaved) crotches while I craved hairy legs. One other thing: I discovered that men taller than my 6’2″ frame really drew my attention. I had a desire, even need, to lean into them and be hugged. Who knows where this comes from. It just was, and I still admire that today.
However, it did not take me too long to rebel against a gay male culture I observed, and participated in at times, that made such criteria the only guides for relating to other men. I learned that finding a man who met at least some of those criteria might make for a fun, even hot, one-night stand of sexual action . . . but then what? Did we have anything to talk about once the deed was done? Did I even want to contemplate breakfast with him?
I also learned that a man I desired might discover, when we were naked, that I did not meet his standards. I had a few such painful times, especially when they discovered the size of my cock.
I have had three male lovers, including my husband of 19 years, who lasted more than a couple of nights. None of them is tall–all three significantly shorter than me. They each had, and still do as far as I am aware (not easily ascertained now with two of them), beautifully hairy legs. One had a pretty hairless chest, but not the other two. No long hair in the bunch, although Jonathan says he had that years before we met; nor did any of them even consider shaving or even shaping their pubic hair. Of course, as above, I am unable (and unwilling) to check on this with numbers one and two; I will say one man–not one of the three–in my earliest times talked about not only trimming his pubic hair but also blow drying and shaping it ever day. I regret that I never was able to watch that process.
What I have come to understand over these 34 years is that each of these men whom I desired (and with Jonathan still desire in an incredibly powerful, even overwhelming, way), while physically attractive each in their own way, drew me to them for more than their physical attributes. In this sense, my particular body turn-ons, festishes might be the more
accurate term, were and are only part of the package.
Each of these men has a brilliant mind, and a very sophisticated sense of humor as well as a willingness to engage difficult questions of morality and values openly and honestly. Don’t get me wrong: I love sex, want to have sex, but sex for me is more than kissing, licking, sucking, fucking, and ejaculation followed by a feeling of peace and joy.
In some ways, sex is how I live; every human encounter, even those with women where my physical desire is not so obvious, has an erotic component. That, for me, is God’s gift to each of us to create connection. I have different kinds of sex with different people, and with a very few–and for 19 years only one–I have engaged in acts of the utmost physical intimacy.
That does not mean that I my head is not turned, or my interest piqued, at times by a tall man at a party or even on the street, or a man whose chest (or more) I see in the gym shower or locker room–a guy, or woman, can be head over heels-in-love (and sex) with one (or more) and still admire others. Frankly, I am glad to know that at 70 years of age I still notice. As I quoted two weeks ago, in “Queer Is a Verb,” Shug said to Celie (in Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple”), “that’s some of the best stuff God did.”
And that is why I hope and pray that some day we can have open conversations, real sharing, about our personal feelings and desires within communities of faith–because indeed these particularities are part of the gift of God to each of us. Like all gifts of God they deserve to be shared, not shunned or made into nasty secrets that cause us shame.
To do other than celebrate God’s gifts, all of them, is to deny God and the reality that all that draws us to others is God within us.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
What do you think influences your sexuality and sexual expression? Have you ever noticed a deviation from your expectations of your sexuality? Do you find that there are certain traits that turn you on? Please share your thoughts, your heart on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
Join Us Third Thursdays!
Please join us THURSDAY, November 17th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.
Sacred, Not Secret, Part I: Beyond the Binary
What turns you on? Is your attraction based on anatomy, gender identity, or something else entirely?
Sacred, Not Secret is a three-part series beginningThursday, November 17 at 3 PM EST/19:00 UTC in which Malachi Grennell and Rev. Dr. Robin Gorsline, authors of the blog Sex, Bodies, Spirit, discuss alternative expressions of sexuality and intimacy from a Christian perspective. This month, they go “beyond the binary” of gay and straight to explore the fluidity of sexual desire, and explore ways that we can be an open, affirming space for people- not in spite of our sexual relationships, but because of them!